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LBJ/Vietnam Addendum

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Particularly given that it’s already been a subject a broader discussion this year, I should acknowledge that I was wrong to say that “Iraq was just as much a fiasco” as Vietnam. Vietnam was indeed even worse in terms of its bad effect on the people of Vietnam, Cambodia, and the United States than the Iraq war was on the people of Iraq and the U.S., no question. My other point, that LBJ bears less personal responsibility for the Vietnam disaster than Bush does for Iraq, I stand behind. As Erik put it, “Vietnam might be worse than Iraq, but anyone with a realistic shot of becoming president in 1964 was going to do the same thing–from either political party. And we saw that when Nixon took over. It was an elite consensus decision. Iraq was a purely partisan war forced on the American people (not to mention the Iraqi people) by a wing of the Republican Party.” I would add to that the support for Vietnam within the governing coalition was much deeper — most major organized labor leaders, for example, strongly Vietnam, but the Chamber of Commerce wasn’t going to undermine Bush’s domestic agenda if he didn’t go to war in Iraq. Public support for Vietnam was almost certainly stronger as well. Anybody who could have become president in 2000 would have invaded Afghanistan (unless that president could have prevented 9/11), but the Iraq catastrophe was driven by dynamics specific to the Bush administration.

This doesn’t mean, of course, that LBJ is exculpated from any responsibility from Vietnam. First of all, if he gets credit for policies that were in large measure a product of his political coalition he has to get blame for the bad ones (especially when it comes to foreign policy, where the president’s authority is greatest.) And while I think it’s exceedingly implausible that any American president would have withdrawn from Vietnam in 1964 whether they would have escalated it to the same extent is much less clear (and the counterfactual doesn’t look good for LBJ since it’s hard to imagine anyone being much worse.) It doesn’t swallow the credit he should get for passing the best domestic agenda of any 20th century president (yes, including FDR), but it’s major part of his legacy.

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